Super Bowl Ads Suck Up to the Internet With Memes Aplenty

Leave it to a bunch of Volkswagen engineers to come up with an algorithm for the perfect Super Bowl ad.

In the “Game Day Teaser” for the automaker’s upcoming Super Bowl XLVIII commercial, a VW engineer (or at least an actor in a lab coat) explains, “The precision of German engineering makes Volkswagen vehicles great—so why not use it to make a great Volkswagen commercial?” Then, standing in front of a whiteboard covered with topics like “puppies” and “twerking?” he explains that they’ve created an algorithm to combine all the sure-fire hits from previous Big Game commercials into one monster clip. The pretty-girls-and-babies-filled spot falls apart, of course, but that’s the point: They’ve distilled and perfected the art of the attention-grab during football’s biggest game. And we would expect nothing less from the company that went super-viral with their Star Wars-themed “The Force” campaign during 2011′s Bowl.

“Marketers have realized that traditional advertising isn’t working … It’s not just how many people saw your ad on TV; it’s how many views and shares it got online,” says Jonah Berger, a Wharton marketing professor and the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

And that’s just the beginning. Now that we live in a fully two-screen world—it’s estimated that nearly half of viewers have a smartphone or laptop handy while watching TV—it’s increasingly important that ads and other Super Bowl content remain vital on both of them, especially when 30-second spots can run advertisers something in the neighborhood of $4 million. “Playing to online fan bases is one way to encourage virality,” Berger says. “Incorporating famous web stars into television ads is a wink and a nod to these groups and increases the chance that they’ll find it relevant and share.” That could explain why more and more content panders to the things and people the internet loves, like Tom Hiddleston (aka Loki)Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, or an entire ad made of memes, like the one for website development service Squarespace.

Then there are the internet faves that aren’t even in Super Bowl ads at all, like Keyboard Cat invading Puppy Bowl.

You read that right. This year, Puppy Bowl X—also known as the thing viewers flip to when they don’t want to watch commercials—has Keyboard Cat providing the halftime show entertainment for the cuddlier of Sunday’s sports matches. The original Keyboard Cat “Fatso” passed away a while ago, but a new cat has taken his place and will play Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” during Animal Planet’s counter-programming show, which will also feature Lil Bub. Yes, Lil Bub. Web stars are becoming Super Bowl stars too.

And it goes both ways. For every meme that finds its way onto your television this Sunday, there will undoubtedly be a new meme born. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, whose team will be facing off against the Denver Broncos, is already an internet meme after his declaration to Fox’s Erin Andrews two weeks ago that he was the “best corner in the game.” There’s a chance he could continue that reign with a meme-ready moment during the Big Game. There are also completely unexpected moments that become internet gold—like last year’s random blackout, which Oreo capitalized on with its “You can still dunk in the dark” tweet. (It’s enough to make you wonder what would’ve happened if Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “wardrobe malfunction” were to happen in this day and age.)

These moments, said Sarah Hofstetter, CEO of 360i, the digital marketing agency responsible for Oreo’s tweet, are “low-hanging fruit” for advertisers who can capitalize on them. But that doesn’t mean advertisers can forego a Super Bowl ad and just hope to go viral. Most will have to have a viral ad and be working the web during the game.

“Sometimes there are the most obvious gimmes, whether it’s Richard Sherman or the New York weather, or the traffic—there’s going to be plenty,” Hofstetter said. “You’ve got to balance two different forces: you’ve got the advertisers who are trying to get more bang for their buck, then you’ve got non-advertisers that think they can just break through the clutter by being viral.”

There is one (sort of) exception, so far, to this rule. Newcastle Brown Ale has a series of web clips, a site the beermaker describes as “the mega huge website we could afford for the mega huge football game ad we couldn’t afford.” The best of these (so far) has featured Pitch Perfect singer/actress and nerdcrush Anna Kendrick talking about how she may not be “beer commercial hot” but rather “hottest girl in your improv class hot.” Meta? Yes. Also, hilarious—and better yet, it taps into the Super Bowl ad zeitgeist without actually being a Super Bowl ad. “Newcastle,” Hofstetter said, “has been doing an excellent job – but that’s been a significant investment.”

Ultimately, it’s not about what makes it on the air Sunday night anymore. It’s about what is still filling our social media feeds on Monday morning. And for that, companies will pull out all the stops—even, as Dannon did for its Oikos Greek yogurt, if that means pulling off a Full House reunion. The show has, for reasons that include but are not limited to Bob Saget and the Olson twins, become so much of an online phenomenon that Dannon’s Game Day spot will reunite spokesman John Stamos up with his former costars Saget and Dave Coulier. The ad has already been viewed more than 2.5 million times on YouTube.

“In all of our work with brands, we work with a lot of brands, and that viral video is the holy grail,” said Liz MacDonald, director of client services for video production firm Poptent, which helped Dannon create their Super Bowl spot. “[But] we encourage our brands to think about authenticity first and not viral first. Viral is a difficult thing to achieve; it’s a moving target.” That doesn’t stop anyone from trying to hit it, though.